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Barbara O'Brien

Buddhist Fundamentalism?

By November 14, 2012

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At Patheos, Justin Whitaker brings up the topic of Buddhist fundamentalism. Is there such a thing? And if so, what would Buddhist fundamentalism look like?

First, we need to define "fundamentalism." I hear the word used to describe traditions and practices that don't seem the least bit "fundamentalist" to me, but then, I grew up in the Bible Belt. I've had more exposure to undiluted fundamentalism than most of my neighbor New Yorkers, I suspect.

The term fundamentalism grew out of an American Christian movement of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, in which a faction of conservative Christians identified doctrines considered by them to be "fundamental" to Christianity.  The fundamentalist movement appears to have been fueled by an abhorrence to modernism. These fundamentalists were repelled by academic scholarship that questioned the authorship of the books of the Bible, for example. They rejected the popular Social Gospel movement of the time that stressed social justice and service to the poor. The newfangled science of evolution made them positively twitchy.

Fundamentalism came to be most closely associated with the belief that the Bible is literally inerrant. The fundamentalists believed the allegorical or metaphorical interpretations of the Bible favored by modernists were all wrong. The Catholic Church and older Protestant denominations had always invested the Bible with great authority, but fundamentalists took rigid literalism to new and extreme degrees.

Since then, the word "fundamentalist" has been used to describe reactionary movements in Islam, Judaism, and other religious traditions with entirely different doctrines.  It also has been extended to conservative Christians who don't necessarily agree with the original "fundamentals." What is it that makes a religion "fundamentalist"?

If the topic interests you, I highly recommend Karen Armstrong's book The Battle for God. She analyzes the histories of fundamentalist movements in Christianity, Judaism, and Islam, and calls out what they have in common. What emerges, to me, is that fundamentalist movements primarily are backlashes to social change that find expression in religion. Fundamentalists are motivated by existential fear more than by devotion. They see themselves in danger of annihilation from something they think the modern world is forcing on them.

Traits common to all fundamentalist movements include --

  • They embrace dualistic, black-and-white, absolutist thinking. Everything and everyone is either good or evil.
  • They fear annihilation.
  • They take their values from an idealized past, either real or imagined.
  • They often withdraw from mainstream society to form their own communities and cultures.
  • They see themselves in a struggle to retake society and reinstate whatever they think the modern world is destroying.

The point is that people can be deeply and traditionally devout without being fundamentalist. Belief in God or Allah or the Pure Land is not in itself fundamentalist. Investing scripture with sacred authority is not necessarily fundamentalist. A traditionally religious person who is open to new understanding and tolerant of other views is plainly not a fundamentalist.

So now that (I hope) we're on the same page as to what "fundamentalism" is, are there fundamentalist tendencies anywhere in the world of Buddhism? I can think of some possible examples, but maybe I'll take those up in the next post.


November 15, 2012 at 11:44 am
(1) Michael says:

Fundamentalism in Buddhism is difficult to categorize. Different groups have been categorized as “fundamentalist” for different reasons:

Groups like the New Kadampa are considered fundamentalist because they are accused of rejecting any teaching that has not been filtered theough TsongKhapa.

Any group that holds the importance of lineage transmission (most Zen and Tibetan schools for example) are considered fundamentalist by more eclectic “Western Buddhist” groups.

Stephen Batchelor refers to himself as a Buddhist fundamentalist (only half tongue in cheek) because he claims he is only interested in what the Buddha actually taught (whatever that was) and not later cultural accretions.

Groups like the Burmese Sangha members who protested against the Muslim Rohingya community were considered fundamentalists

Sectarianism is part of fundamentlism but not all of it. A return to the values of the founder could be fundamentalism as could an insistence on established tradition. I am not sure defining Buddhist fundamentalism using the lens of the Abrahamic religions will provide a useful definition. I’d be interested in what others think.

November 15, 2012 at 11:21 pm
(2) John A. Kauth says:

Barbara, your comments on fundamentalism as it applies to other religions did not go far enough. Your last bullet point, “They see themselves in a struggle to retake society and reinstate whatever they think the modern world is destroying.” speaks to the most dangerous aspect of classic fundamentalism. Buddhist fundamentalism seems to be an internal difference of opinions on Buddhism. Other religions, mainly Christian and Muslim have no such restrictions. To these fundamentalist anyone who does not believe as they do is inferior and needs to be converted to their thinking, by force if necessary. The Christian fundamentalist is this country proclaim that anyone of any religion that does not believe in their ways is condemned to hell. There is also a belief and an effort to turn the United States into a Christian theocracy. Much of the Recent Republican war on women is based on fundamentalist Christian ideas. They believe that it is their Christian duty to impose their views on others. Radical Muslims in many countries try to force Sharia law on those that don’t believe as they do. The term fundamentalist as it applies to Buddhism cries out for a less radical term.

November 16, 2012 at 8:15 am
(3) Barbara O'Brien says:

To these fundamentalist anyone who does not believe as they do is inferior and needs to be converted to their thinking, by force if necessary.

As I said, I grew up in the Bible Belt and am very familiar with this. But there are many examples of aggressive and even violent Christian and Muslim “proselytizing” that pre-date fundamentalism by many centuries, and this phenomenon doesn’t directly relate to the question of what “fundamentalism” actually means.

The term fundamentalist as it applies to Buddhism cries out for a less radical term.

Well, yes, that was kind of my point, although I probably didn’t express it clearly.

November 16, 2012 at 9:16 am
(4) George Deane says:

To me fundamentalism is nostalgia for the past combined with a refusal to acknowledge the infiltration of modern scholarship. They refuse to acknowledge the re-evaluation of the true nature of religion, stripped down to its core. To me its main characteristic is a dualistic vision in which an impoverished Man sits below and a perfect Being reigns above and to whom this impoverished human entity can petition for relief. A a corollary, it seems to me, is that fundamentalism is an inability l to see human human life as it is, in its nature of massive discontent and suffering without appeal to extraterrestrial relief.

November 16, 2012 at 10:03 am
(5) Barbara O'Brien says:

George — what you describe tends to be true of fundamentalism, but much of what you describe also is true of religion that wouldn’t be considered “fundamentalist” by theologians or even most of us who have had considerable exposure to undiluted fundamentalism, which is hard to find in New York. Some of what you describe also is true of much of religion going back many centuries, predating the fundamentalist movement. Using the word “fundamentalist” to describe all dogmatic/conservative religion robs the word of its usefulness, IMO.

IMO it’s more useful, and accurate, to define “fundamentalism” as a form of militant opposition to modernity, or as a reactionary social pathology that expresses itself as religion. Put another way, it’s a backlash to modernity that uses religion to claim authority for its views. This is a perspective supported by the work of scholars Karen Armstrong, Martin E. Marty and R. Scott Appleby (of the Fundamentalism Project), among many others.

If you spend much time with genuine fundamentalists, you notice their approach to doctrine and scripture really is more about opposing modernism than about being faithful to what doctrines and scriptures might have been intended to mean. Often it’s not so much that they cling to certain social or cultural views because of religious teaching, but that they cling to particular religious beliefs because those beliefs support their social/cultural views.

What is most unique and distinctive about fundamentalists across religious traditions is their view of themselves as a besieged minority in danger of annihilation. Their attachment to their vision of the past goes way beyond mere nostalgia; they believe if they don’t re-establish this idealized (and mostly fantasy) past in the world, their religion (Christianity or whatever) and maybe humankind itself is doomed.

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